6 key tactics to sell effectively on Amazon

You may be interested in selling on Amazon to increase sales or to start your own business. With over 100 million people making a purchase on Amazon every month you’ve come to the right place.

Amazon is one of the few online platforms in the world that can offer businesses a huge built-in customer base.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to sell on Amazon. Far from it. Like all marketplaces, you need to take into account a number of factors in order to sell effectively.

However if you learn the right tactics, it’s possible to make a small fortune.

Why sell on Amazon?

If you’re not convinced selling on Amazon is right for you, then consider the points below.

  • Access to millions of potential customers:

With over 244 million active users on Amazon, you already have one of the largest customer bases in the world driving traffic to your products. Your own standalone website simply can’t match that potential.

  • Simplistic selling:

Amazon’s listing tools make it easier to sell than ever before. Building your own website or brick and mortar store simply can’t compete with Amazon’s simplistic and speedy design.

  • Selling under a reputable and trusted brand:

A trusted brand is worth its weight in gold. Amazon is known and trusted by virtually every consumer out there. In fact the Amazon brand is worth $35.2 billion. This makes your products instantly more attractive to consumers.

  • Seller & buyer protection:

Although Amazon’s rules and guidelines can work against sellers, they do limit fraudulent activity and can help to resolve disputes.

  • Scaleability:

Unlike a brick and mortar business, Amazon already provides the customer base, the selling tools and the option to use their warehouses for your inventory. If you’re making good sales on Amazon, the potential for expansion is a real and exciting prospect.

Low and proportionate costs:

On the face of it Amazon’s fees seem high. However when you consider the advantages above they appear justified. It would seem Amazon’s 2 million active sellers would also agree.

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Amazon warehouses have more square footage than 700 madison square gardens

Learn from the best selling products

Knowing what your competitors sell and how often they are making a sale is key information. Don’t ever underestimate good research.

To get to know the best selling products, click on a product listed on Amazon (preferably a listing that is high up in the search results). Under “Product details” it will show the “Best Sellers Rank”. As shown below it can be displayed in different ways.

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All you need to know is that the lower the ranking number (i.e. 279 in electronics), the more they are selling.

The rank is always relative to other products. So for instance a product may start selling well however if all the other competitor’s products also start selling well, their rank will stay the same. Therefore it cannot be an accurate way of calculating actual sales, rather a way to understand the best selling products.

On the other hand, eBay do allow you to see the actual sales, which i explain in my article: 7 key tactics to help you research and sell on eBay.

To gain a more accurate picture of the competitive landscape, it’s sometimes a good idea to track the seller rank over time to discover what the long-term best sellers are instead of the one-hit wonders.

Generally the best selling products will be at the top of the search and will often have more customer reviews. This is particularly relevant in niche markets, however in popular categories, don’t be fooled into thinking sellers on the 2nd or 3rd page aren’t selling much.

Popular categories such as toys have more products to show in the search and therefore products on later pages may also be selling significant quantities.

Once you know the best selling products in your market, make sure you analyse the product and the listing in detail.

  • Does their product have a unique selling point?
  • Is their product priced very competitively?
  • Is the product description informative and appealing?
  • Are their images first class?

If you can emulate their key selling points or make their weaknesses your strengths, you will have the real potential to become the top seller.

Work out your profit with Amazon fees

Although you may have a profit margin for your product, its essential that your margin incorporates the correct Amazon fees or you will get a nasty surprise.

Amazon’s official page on pricing can be found below. In summary if your business is selling more than 35 items a month you pay the following:

  • £25 subscription fee
  • A percentage commission of the sale depending on the product category (called a ‘referral fee’)
  • A small ‘Variable closing fee’ for some product categories.

https://services.amazon.co.uk/services/sell-online/pricing.html

Unlike eBay, Amazon make it relatively clear what fees need to be paid. If you have listed a product you can check the specific fees by clicking on the ‘Inventory’ tab in seller central. It will then show you the fee per product in the “Fee Preview” column, as shown in the red box below.

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If you click on a blue figure it will show you a summary of the fees, as shown below.

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The referral fee is the real killer. You must find out the referral fee that applies to your product since it can potentially have a large impact on your product margin.

For example some product categories such as jewellery have a 25% fee! Then again product categories with typically low margins have fees as low as 7%. The referral fee structure is below.

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If you can absorb the fees and still make an acceptable profit, you’re ready to sell on Amazon. Fees may seem high, but remember Amazon can increase sales exponentially in comparison to your own standalone website.

Create an unbeatable product description

The description for your product is obviously important. The key on Amazon and in most copy writing is to fit as many selling points in the provided word count as possible.

There are 3 main fields that describe a product on Amazon:

  • The title
  • The bullet points (known as key product features)
  • The product description

1. The Title

The title is shown at the top of the listing however more importantly, the title is the only piece of text shown in the search results for your item.

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For this reason you need to grab the customers attention. A common mistake is to fill the title with keywords in the view that when these keywords are searched, your listing will appear. Although this may be true on eBay it is not an effective strategy on Amazon.

Keywords or ‘search terms’ as Amazon calls them, can be inputted in a separate field when you list a product. If a customer enters these search terms in any combination your item will appear somewhere in the results. The same applies to the keywords in the title. However,

“The title and search terms carry equal weight”

So there is no need to pack your title with unnecessary keywords, instead put it in the search terms. The title should be full of selling points to grab the customers attention.

An example of a good title with many selling points is:

The ZZap MS40i Money Counting Scale – Inbuilt printer, battery powered, counts a till in less than 2 minutes, checks coin bags and banknote bundles, save data to memory or PC and more!

An example of a poor title packed full of keywords is:

ZZap Money Cash Coins Banknotes Change Currency Count Electronic Scales Machine

2. Key product features

On every Amazon listing you will notice there are bullet points at the top of the page, as shown below in the red box. These are called the key product features.

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These bullet points are the bread and butter of your description. They are often the only copy text that is read properly (the product description is sometimes not even looked at).

Customers have a very short attention span so you have to prioritise the most important selling points in the top bullet point and so on.

There is a character limit for each bullet point. I find that writing short points rather than sentences uses up your limit more efficiently and gets across your point more effectively. I use forward slashes to separate points.

An example of a good bullet point is:

Counts 4 currencies: GBP, EUR, USD and CHF (other currencies on request) / Counts presorted banknotes & coins / Counts coin bags/rolls and banknote bundles / Save & view count reports in the memory / Calibrate your own cash drawer coin cups and other containers / Reference numbers & date-time stamps / Automatic or manual switch to next denomination / Automatic or manual add counting result to running total

This bullet point also fills up the character limit, so you’re giving the maximum number of reasons why a customer should buy your product.

Sometimes it may be worth doing less points for low value items since the customer will not be as interested to read all the information.

3. Product description

The product description is a great way to have an edge over the competition. It is often neglected since it is shown towards the bottom of the listing. However with the use of some simple HTML, you can pack in more information that you couldn’t explain in the bullet points.

HTML is a type of coding that makes your product description clearer and more appealing.

An example of a product description NOT using HTML:

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An example of a product description using HTML:

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HTML is like a different language. It takes time to learn, however simple HTML like this can be learnt fairly easily using websites such as that below or using ready made templates.

https://understandinge.com/amazon-html-product-descriptions/

Again its important to use up your character limit. The more selling points and information the customer has, the more comfortable they will be purchasing your product. I find that an overview paragraph followed by bullet points provides the customer with everything they need to know.

Finally make sure you research all your competitors descriptions. If a competitor uses a selling point as simple as “compact & portable” and you don’t, this may be the difference between making and breaking a sale.

Ensure you include all the best points your competitors use, plus more, then you’ll be onto a winner.

Make your images stand out from the crowd

If you’re aiming to become the best seller you will need good quality images. Here are a few tips to make sure your images stand out from the crowd.

  • Ensure you have very large, high resolution photos:

Although Amazon allows 500 x 500 pixel images, you should be aiming to have images with a minimum size of 2000 x 2000 pixels. This means when they are clicked on or zoomed in, they won’t lose their quality (see below) and most of all, the images will look professional.

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  • Show the product in action:

As shown in the above image the product is being used i.e. banknotes are being counted. This creates a far better effect than if the product was shown on its own. It’s more eye catching and it doesn’t leave anything to imagination.

  • Use a professional photographer:

When it comes to taking your product pictures, hiring a good photographer will avoid a lot of problems. For example good lighting vs bad lighting can transform the product and can have a real impact on sales.

  • Make the background pure white:

Don’t create a sloppy off-white background. It’s not professional and it doesn’t enhance the product like a pure white background does.

  • Use a photoshop specialist:

To create a white background the image will need to be ‘cut out’ of its original background. A specialist will make sure the images are cut out precisely and even layer on some shadows for effect. They can also touch up the image to remove marks and blemishes to make the product look perfect.

Set the perfect price

Of course, the price has to be set at a point where you’re making a profit. However depending on the competitive landscape, you may want to increase or decrease your profit margin in order to achieve the highest overall profit.

  • Know the value of your product:

If your product is better than the competition, price it accordingly. Don’t be afraid of pricing it higher than your competitors. In fact, when you set a low price for what is perceived to be a high value product, customers sometimes think it’s too good to be true.

  • Know the competitors prices:

If your product, description, images, etc, are very similar to the competition, price may be the only  differentiator left. In that case setting a low price is necessary. It is wise to take a hit on your  profit margin to gain sales.

  • Keep your finger on the pulse:

Competitors often change prices, offer discounts for a period of time and sponsor products (pay amazon to appear higher in the search results). This means it’s important to monitor your competitors activity and act accordingly to maintain sales.

Get the best customer reviews

Customer reviews on eBay are important but on Amazon they really do make or break your sales.

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Amazon has a 5 star rating system, which is very prominent. When a customer purchases a product they have the option to give that product a rating.

The rating system is directly under the title and its one of the first things a customer looks at. If your product is rated 3 star or below, you can say goodbye to the majority of your sales.

Generally the more ratings you have (the number shown by the side of the stars), the more you can get away with a lower rating. This because customers understand its harder to keep 1000 people happy than say 1 person.

Now, enough of the explanation. Lets talk about how you can achieve a 5 star rating.

  • Dispatch items on the same day and use a fast delivery service:

This is one of the easiest and effective ways to get a good rating. If a customers product arrives late you’ll already be on the back foot and any other mishap will likely result in a bad rating.

Fast delivery services may be pricey but a poor review will cost you more. Quick delivery will also improve the customers experience and encourage repeat custom.

  • Keep in regular communication with your customer:

If your customer is thinking of leaving a bad review, great communication may be the only saviour you have left.

Always make sure you keep on top of correspondence. Customers won’t hesitate to leave a bad review if you’re not even willing to rectify the problem.

  • Don’t mislead customers:

If you lie in your listing, you’re asking for trouble. You may think you’re getting ahead of the competition but in the long run you will lose. There’s a reason the Amazon rating system is so prominent and effective.

  • Quality check your products:

The last thing you or the customer wants is to have a faulty product on arrival. Always quality check products if there’s a chance they are defective.

This is particularly important if you’re sending the item abroad since delivery will be a lot more expensive if the customer decides to return the product.

References

http://www.forbes.com/powerful-brands/list/#tab:rank

https://sellerengine.com/top-5-things-you-need-to-know-about-amazon-sales-rank/

http://www.sitepronews.com/2014/11/10/five-little-known-facts-keywords-amazon-product-listings-hinder-success/

https://understandinge.com/amazon-html-product-descriptions/

7 key tactics to help you research and sell effectively on eBay

Using the right tactics on eBay can make you a great deal of money. With an estimated 6 billion pounds worth of sales processed each year, eBay is an online platform you should be taking advantage of.

Theres no doubt eBay can offer benefits that you can’t gain from your own website or store. Let me explain some of the advantages of eBay;

  • Low and proportionate costs: eBay fees range from 8% to 11% of the total value of your sale depending on the product category. eBay fees are a small price to pay in comparison to alternatives such as building your own website or starting a brick and mortar business. Since you only pay fees when you sell something, it also makes costs more manageable.
  • Immediate access to millions of potential customers: With over 162 million active buyers on eBay, you already have a ‘built-in’ source of traffic. With a standalone website, it’s a costly and long process to drive consistent traffic to your website.
  • Quick & simple selling: “My eBay” has many features that allow you to create and manage listings quickly and easily. You’ll soon realise the simplicity of eBay when you compare it to building your own website.
  • Immediate reputation and trust: eBay is a reputable online platform people trust. eBay spend millions of pounds to promote and maintain their brand, as a result you benefit from higher traffic and conversions.
  • Seller & buyer protection: Rules, guidelines and support are already in place to protect both buyers and sellers from fraudulent activity and disputes.

Find out what items are selling and how often

eBay has a fantastic tool which shows how many times a product has been sold. See the image below. Simply go on a buy it now listing and click on the red figures, in this example “839 sold”, it will then list all the buyers that bought the item, the quantity they bought and the date they bought it on. Do some quick calculations and you can see how many have sold per week/month.

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Alternatively, for an overview on what has been sold, search for your desired product then click on “Sold listings” in the left side bar (see the red box in the below image). This will list all the products (including auctions) that have sold under your search phrase.

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When analysing this data, be sure to take into account all the variables such as price, product, description, feedback, etc. For example if a product is over priced this may explain why it is not selling. Or you could have a listing with a very professional product description which could lend itself to high sales.

By analysing the data you can start to understand what product, price, description you need to have in order to become a top seller. It also provides you with a bench mark for potential sales. Armed with this information you can start determining whether selling your product on eBay is viable.

Work out your profit and don’t forget the hidden fees!

Ultimately you are here to make profit and to do that you need to work out profit margins for your products. At this stage a ‘back-of-the-envelope’ style profit margin is all you need.

Firstly you need to figure out the price of your product and the price you will charge for postage. You should already have an idea of what to charge from your research in the first chapter.

Secondly figure out your costs. The cost of manufacturing or purchasing the product is the most obvious cost. However other costs such as inbound shipping (to your location) and outbound shipping (to your customer) must be incorporated. And don’t forget costs such as import duty, delivery fuel surcharges and VAT.

Make sure you also include eBay fees. eBay fees known as final value fees can be seen in the link below.

http://sellercentre.ebay.co.uk/fees-business-sellers-0

Under the heading  “Optional listing upgrades and final value fees”, click “final value fees by category”. It will then list the product categories with their fee percentages. If you list above 20 items per month you also have to pay an ‘insertion fee’ for each listing – normally 35p per item.

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Finally, you have to incorporate payment processing fees. PayPal is a popular choice, so we will use this as an example. PayPal fees are listed in the table below. If you process more than £1,500 per month on PayPal you qualify for merchant discounts. In summary, the more you sell the less you pay in fees. However if you’re going to take one thing away from this article it should be that;

You have to apply for merchant discounts. They are NOT automatically applied.

If you don’t apply and you process more than £1500 per month, you’re literally throwing away money. You can apply for merchant discount by logging into your PayPal account and applying via the online application form in settings.

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You can read more about PayPal fees in the link below.

https://www.paypal.com/gb/webapps/mpp/paypal-fees

Now you have your costs, simply deduct them from your sales price and you’re left with your profit as shown below. As I mentioned this is a ’back-of-the-envelope’ style, and you can factor in your own specific factors such as premises costs, administration, staff, etc., however that can be done at a later stage once you have found the the most profitable products.

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Make sure people can find your listing

Unless you have a good item title, eBayers won’t be able to find your item. Whats the use in selling your item if people can’t find it? Let me explain how you make the perfect item title.

When buyers do a search, eBay matches their search phrase with the words in your item title. For example if you searched “USB cable” and your item has “USB” or “cable” in the title, your listing would appear in the results. Generally the more the search phrase matches with your title, the higher your listing will be ranked in the results.

So what is the best way to create the item title? Here are a number of methods.

  • Be a copy cat: An easy way is to copy the title of the current top-selling product. The likelihood is that their title is going to have a bunch of good keywords. Be sure to check all the keywords are relevant to your listing.
  • Write all the keywords for your item: If you’re selling a USB cable, you need to be putting in any relevant words such as 3 meter, male to male, printer cable, extension cable, etc.
  • Let eBay help you: Search your product and eBay will automatically generate related phrases under the search bar. Use the keywords that apply to your product.

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  • Write synonyms: Everyone calls products different names. For example if you’re selling a USB cable, be sure to put in ‘lead’ as well.
  • Use all the available characters: You have 80 characters, make sure you use all of them. A missed keyword could be a lost sale.

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Use HTML in your description

The description can be the difference between making a sale and losing one. Make your description great and don’t settle for less. Let me explain how.

Unless you’re a web developer, you won’t know how to write HTML or you may not even know what HTML means. HTML is basically a language that your computer can understand. Web browsers such as Chrome and Safari ‘read’ HTML to determine how to display a web page.

Let me show you the difference between an eBay description using HTML and one without.

Standard description

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HTML description

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As you can see HTML descriptions make the listing more attractive with images, graphics, different colours and layouts, etc. To be a top-seller you need to embrace HTML. So how do you go about it? Here’s how.

You have three options. Hire a web developer to create the HTML for you, use a HTML builder or learn how to write HTML. For most people writing HTML is not going to be an option. Unless you aspire to be a web developer, writing your own HTML will take too long.

HTML builders such as ‘Web Solutions’, see link below, allow you to build your own HTML listing. They are free, quick and easy. However if your competition have professional, feature rich HTML descriptions you may need to hire a web developer to better them.

http://www.cgwebsolutions.com/OurServices/VieweBayTemplateBuilder.asp

If you’re looking for a relatively cheap web developer look on websites such as peopleperhour.com or freelancer.com. Simply compile a list of all the features you want on your listing and the web developer will create the HTML for you. Check out the chapter I wrote on “Finding the right web developer” in my article below.

http://zzaponline.co.uk/blog/why-you-need-an-e-commerce-website-and-what-it-takes-to-build-one/

Great features to include in your HTML are:

  • Comparison tables: Comparison tables do more than just compare. They introduce the customer to your other products and keep them locked into your product range rather than the competitors.
  • Images: Perhaps one of the most important things to include in your description are images. Be sure to add many images with captions.
  • Copy writing: Use facts and concise bullet points. Then mix in a persuasive sales pitch with a general overview of the product. Often eBayers forget the value of a good sales pitch. Make your description stand out.
  • Add feedback: Customers can already view your feedback on eBay but thats not to say you can’t remind them of it. Put in a few of your very best feedback comments in the description. It may well be that extra persuasion the buyer needs in order to purchase.
  • Don’t hide the details: Delivery, warranty, payment, contact details all need to be incorporated into the description. Don’t pull the wool over their eyes, you will get found out and it won’t be worth it.

Make your images stand out

Great images are fundamental to creating an effective eBay listing. Abide by these few tips and you’ll be amazed at how it can impact your sales.

Take high resolution photos: Don’t use your iPhone to take images or your mates cannon camera. Take it to a specialist who has dedicated lighting and all sorts of tools to make your product look great. It may cost, but it only needs to be done once.

Don’t cut off images: Don’t zoom in when you take photographs so that you can’t see the background on all 4 sides. This is because you can always zoom in on the product in post production. This way you’re left with two images instead of one – the zoomed in photo and a image of the whole product.

Whiten backgrounds and retouch images: As per eBay’s policy, the main image background has to be pure white. However it’s a good idea to whiten all your image backgrounds if you want to convey a professional image. While you’re at it, be sure to re-touch blemishes or marks on the product. There are plenty of photoshop specialists on websites such as peopleperhour.com that will do this work very cheaply.

Use borders and logos: Use a border or logo on the main eBay image. This makes your image stand out in the search results and differentiates you from the competition.

Set the right price

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eBay is a price driven marketplace, so there’s not much room for error when it comes to pricing your product. However following these simple tips will make sure you’re on the right track.

Don’t charge for postage: One of the requirements of being a Top-rated seller is to offer free delivery on all your listings. And it’s worth it. As a “Top-rated seller” you benefit from a number of things such as a 10% discount on your eBay fees and a special badge on your listings. Your customers will also appreciate your unambiguous pricing.

Constantly monitor the competition: eBay is full of small businesses who sell a handful of products. Unlike larger firms, small businesses adjust prices frequently and can be unpredictable. It’s mandatory that you keep an eye on competitors prices or you will quickly lose sales.

Don’t be afraid to price your product higher: It’s a common misconception that the cheapest wins on eBay. eBay is price driven, but if you’re offering a premium product, don’t be afraid to charge premium prices. In fact sometimes it’s the perfect strategy – your competitors fight for the low-end products, while you sell at the high-end with limited competition.

Don’t be afraid to regularly adjust your prices: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Adjust your prices and see how your sales compare. There’s rarely an optimum price since the market is constantly changing.

Take feedback and customer reviews seriously

Feedback is very much a top topic and for good reason. There are 3 forms of feedback.

1. Conventional feedback linked to your user ID. As shown below, the quantity of feedback is shown next to your user ID with the percentage of positive feedback shown below.

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This type of feedback is shown on all your listings and is a popular way to quickly tell if a company is trustworthy. For this reason negative feedback impacts on sales. Anything below 95% positive feedback and your sales will definitely suffer.

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2. Detailed seller ratings known as DSRs are a more specific type of feedback and although they are viewed by the public, you should be aware that they are used by eBay to monitor your performance.

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If you perform poorly in any of the 4 criteria above eBay can take away your top-seller status (along with your 10% discount on eBay fees), suspend or even block your account.

3. A feature eBay have recently introduced is a product specific rating system. Similar to amazon reviews, these ratings will impact specific products rather than your whole eBay profile.

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Although it’s good to be aware of the forms of feedback, there are simple solutions to keep both eBay and your customers happy.

  • Dispatch your items on the same day: Despite the hassle, it is good practise to dispatch items on the same day. Delivery delays and impatient customers will hurt your feedback even if you dispatch the item in reasonable time. eBay’s feedback policy is known to be stacked in the buyers favour so it’s worth being on the safe side.
  • Don’t overlook fast delivery times: Quick delivery services can be pricey, but negative feedback will cost you more. Don’t skimp on delivery just because the quicker service costs a bit more. A quick service reduces negative feedback, encourages repeat custom and can contribute to a top-seller status which saves you 10% off your eBay fees.
  • Keep on top of customer correspondence: eBay and customers appreciate quick responses. eBay quite literally will award disputes in the buyers favour if you don’t reply to a complaint in a reasonable time frame. There is no excuse for lengthy response times. Tackle the angry customer you’ve been putting off!
  • Don’t trick customers: Make your descriptions 100% accurate. Don’t mislead customers or you’ll pay the price; product returns will lose you outbound postage costs,  return postage costs back to your location and thats on top of any damage to the product and packaging. Not to mention the possibility of bad feedback. And don’t look to eBay for support either, they will favour the buyer in a heartbeat.

There is however one valuable tip I can share with you if you do receive negative feedback. eBay states:

“You can submit 5 Feedback revision requests for every 1,000 Feedback comments you’ve received in the past 12 consecutive months.”

See the below eBay page for more details:

http://pages.ebay.co.uk/help/feedback/revision-request.html

Not many businesses are aware of this service. Be sure to use it wisely, feedback revisions are gold dust. They can only be used if you have resolved the problems with the buyer – which you will do, if you value your feedback. Once you have made a request and the buyer accepts, the negative feedback is removed.

Don’t waste feedback revisions on neutral feedback. Neutral feedback does not affect your positive feedback percentage.

References

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/money-saving-tips/10920308/How-to-set-up-a-successful-eBay-business.html

http://thewhineseller.com/2011/08/advantages-disadvantages-selling-ebay-today/

http://smallbusiness.chron.com/advantages-using-ebay-small-scale-sellers-65793.html

Why you need an e-commerce website and what it takes to build one.

This article outlines the importance of owning an e-commerce website and the key factors involved in building one. I find small businesses need a simple guide on how to build an e-commerce website without going into the technical aspects they don’t understand. Simply put, an e-commerce website is an online platform that buys or sells goods or services over the internet, usually with the ability to accept online payments. This article provides small businesses with the outline they need to grasp the fundamentals, after that the work can be delegated to specialists. Having a grasp on the subject ensures you can make informed decisions without spending too much time getting into the details. You can read the whole article or click on the chapters below to skip to the desired topic.

  1. Why you need an e-commerce store
  2. Website builder vs web developers
  3. Finding the right web developer
  4. Buying a great domain name
  5. Designing the perfect website
  6. How to receive online payments
  7. Making your website rank highly in search engines
  8. Displaying customer reviews
  9. Other considerations
  10. How to drive traffic to your website
  11. Monitoring how many people visit your website and how they respond
  12. Conclusion

Why you need an e-commerce store

The majority of industry experts will say that having an online presence is essential for most small businesses. I completely agree however instead of viewing a website as a chore or something you need to get round to doing, I think it is useful to view a website as an opportunity. Research suggests a massive 60% of small business in the UK still have no online presence at all. Fraser Simpson, digital editor at Contentive, says more than 1 million SMEs lack basic digital skills and 45,000 small businesses in the UK still use a dial up connection to run their company website. Buzzboard also found a huge number of British SMEs are still not “digital-ready”, with 71% admitting to being unable to handle online consumers.

So what does this mean for you? It means the chances are your competition does not have a website and if they do it’s probably going to be a substandard website. It means you have a massive opportunity to reach new customers, increase revenue and increase net profit. In fact it will probably be the best growth strategy you adopt this decade. Still sceptical? Ok I’ll put it another way. If you don’t build a website in the next few years, your competitors will. Eventually it won’t become an opportunity, it will become a necessity. If you wait too long, you’ll be playing catch-up and you won’t be reaping the same rewards than if you started today.

Online retail expenditure in the UK is forecast to grow by 44.9% in the next 5 years (Source: Verdictretail.com). UK consumers are the most frequent online shoppers in all of Europe, spending on average £1,174 a year online (Source: RetailMeNot and the Centre of Retail Research). A study conducted by RetailMeNot and the Centre of Retail Research provided the figures below. You don’t need to be good at figures to know that online shopping is the future.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 11.09.51

Finally, if statistics and macro-economics are not your thing, perhaps you need to know the advantages of having an e-commerce website. Firstly there are no geographical limitations. Having a website means you are instantly marketable to the whole of the UK or even the world depending on your product and delivery services. A brick and mortar store may have 50,000 people in the surrounding area, whereas a UK website you have a market of more than 60 million people. If you already have a physical business, the good news is you’ve already done the hard part. Websites are easier to set up than physical businesses and they have far lower operational costs meaning more profit and less risk. Websites are also 24/7, so you don’t need to be on the shop floor to make a sale, you could even make a sale while you are fast asleep. A simple search of your website is also quicker, easier and more convenient than walking around a store.

Advantages-of-Offering-Content-Writing-Services

I understand you are a SME that probably receives the majority of business through word of mouth and local knowledge. Web development is an area you have no knowledge in and building an e-commerce website just seems like hassle. Unfortunately the cold hard truth is the internet is here to say and if you don’t adapt it is going to chip away at your profits. It may even spell the end for your business in the next decade. You may be thinking at this stage, I am probably in-directly selling you web development services; so to set the record straight, I do not run or have any connections with web development firms. Now lets talk about how you can go about setting up your own e-commerce website.

Website builders vs web developers

There are many website builders such as Wix, Shopify, WordPress, etc. They have extensive tools to build websites and have great communities that can help you out. You can literally build a website within a day with virtually no technical knowledge. Website builders are ideal for businesses like restaurants who don’t need complex functionality and typically remain static (mainly text and images with no fancy graphics or interactivity). The downside is that if you have a specific design in mind with unique features it can be hard to achieve because you are limited to templates and simple customisations. In my experience if you want to be the best in your market, you need a fully customised website. A fully customised website can be made in platforms such as WordPress but you will need to hire a web developer.

Thin line flat design of website building process. Modern vector illustration concept, isolated on white background.

An often overlooked disadvantage of website builders is that it can in the long run be more expensive than hiring a web developer. Website builders from the outset seem very cheap. A web developer may quote thousands of pounds to build a website and a website builder may charge a hundred pounds per year. However website builders will charge more money for additional features (which you will most likely want as your business grows) and soon the cost starts increasing. You will be stuck with these costs indefinitely unless you stop your subscription and abandon your website. With a web developer you can ask for as many features as you want with your exact design and you’ll only pay for it once.

To put it simply if your requirements are simple and will be for years to come, a website builder is the best choice. However for most e-commerce websites that need a professional feature-rich website, I would recommend hiring a web developer. It’s worth noting, if you choose to use a website builder there are many resources and communities to help you along the way. However if you decide to hire a web developer there’s not much advice on the topic. Therefore in the next chapter I will discuss how to find the right web developer.

Finding the right web developer

Finding the right web developer for your requirements and your budget is paramount. There is plenty of advice on how to build websites, however there’s little information on how to find a good developer. This is one of the most important tasks you will do to build your e-commerce website. No matter how much you read around the topic you need a good web developer to inform you on the best courses of action for your particular business. I have worked with a whole spectrum of web developers; cheap, expensive, UK, overseas, specialists, you name it. They all appeal to different businesses at different stages of growth. I learnt the hard way and it wasted a lot of time. Now you realise the importance of this topic, i’ll talk about how to go about finding the right web developer.

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Firstly you have to find out what level of quality you want. Bear in mind the more quality you require, the more you have to pay for it. A very quick way to determine the quality you require is looking at your competitors websites and setting this as a benchmark for your developer. For your comparison, I have put some examples below of what great e-commerce websites look like in comparison to poor ones. Try to envisage what your website needs to look like in order to win over customers. If you have limited competition with poor websites you will be looking for a cheaper website than an overcrowded sector with high quality websites. Of course if you want a high quality website regardless of the competitive landscape, thats absolutely fine and it will future proof business, however as I mentioned you will have to pay for the privilege.

Great e-commerce websites

apple.com

wineshop.hunters.co.nz

hardgraft.com

Poor e-commerce websites

uglytub.com

Jamilin.com

msy.com.au

Once you have a rough idea of the level of quality you are looking for, you can turn your attention to finding a developer. In my experience if you want a high quality website, you should steer clear of Far Eastern developers and stick to UK based or European developers. This is not always the case however you need to be cautious when dealing with them. Although Far Eastern developers nearly always offer a better price, they rarely grasp the western design culture so you often have to hand-hold through the whole project and make endless revisions to get the website to what you want it to look like. Far Eastern developers normally have excellent customer service but often their inability to grasp your requirements in the long term do not make them cost-effective.

To search for a web developer you should be looking on search engines for private websites rather than using comparison websites such as peopleperhour.com. Use search phrases such as “professional web developer”. Use many search terms and visit as many websites as you can. Generally I would always advise to use a freelancer rather than an agency. An agency may achieve a slightly higher quality website in a quicker time frame, however prices can be significantly higher than a freelancer. Agencies are generally suited for larger businesses with projects that require a lot more man power.

I would look for two key factors, in determining the right developer for your business. Number one is their portfolio, that is the work they have created for other clients – if their portfolio is poor, their work will be poor and visa versa. Number two is their own website. If a developer has anything about them, they will have a great website, if they don’t what does that say about them? If their own website is poor I often won’t even bother looking at their portfolio. Once you have a few developers you like, look for elements in their work that are similar to what you are looking for. For example if you want a website based on large images and minimal text look for this in the developer’s portfolio. For example a good developers experience may be limited to complex and large e-commerce websites rather than small niche websites which require a personal touch.

If you’re looking to spend less on a website its a great idea to use a freelancer comparison website such as peopleperhour.com or freelancer.com. They are heavily price driven and therefore quality can sometimes be compromised, however it gives you a good spectrum of quotes and job specific proposals to evaluate. Sometimes you can find great developers at great prices, but it’s very hard. The norm is great prices and average developers. Developer profiles, reviews and portfolios can be useful but until you use them, you never know exactly what you are getting.

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In my experience a low cost e-commerce website will cost between £1k to £3k and a high quality e-commerce website from £4k – £7k and upwards. In summary finding the right developer can save a lot of time and money. But perhaps more importantly a good developer can create an effective e-commerce website to your exact specifications. They can also become a great advisor for you in the future as they learn more and more about your business.

Buying a great domain name

To put it simply, a domain name is the URL address of a website. For example www.zzap.com. However it is more than just a URL. It can describe your business, it will be mentioned in nearly all your marketing and it can create brand awareness. It is a name that will stick with your business indefinitely – unless you change your URL, which is generally bad practise. So picking a good domain name, like choosing your business name, is very important. The majority of the time using your business name as the domain name makes the most sense however there are considerations to take into account.

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Domains can include letters, numbers and hyphens. This is particularly useful if you want a domain name that is already taken because it can be recreated. For example if your company is called “tools for you” and the domain “www.toolsforyou.com” is taken, you could use “www.tools4you.com” instead. In fact using a number in this way can make the domain name more catchy and simplified, which is a key selling point.

Lesley Cowley chief executive at Nominet says “There is no standard in the length of a domain but the rule of thumb is the shorter the better.” It’s no surprise that in general the shorter the name the more expensive the domain is. Ask yourself, can you imagine people spreading the word about your website if the URL is complicated or too long? For example tools4you.com is simple and memorable. cheapandcheerfuldiytoolsforyou.com is the opposite. The domain doesn’t need to be related to your business either. Some of the most valuable domain names are unrelated e.g. amazon.com or apple.com.

Domain names are like property. They are bought and sold. There are many specialist companies such as 123-reg.co.uk or names.co.uk that sell domains. Domains vary in price from a few pence to thousands of pounds. The running cost of owning a domain is normally low; around £5 per annum. If you buy a domain it will have an expiry date which is generally in a few years from when you bought it. If it expires and you have not renewed it the domain will automatically become available to purchase on the market for any buyer. For this reason it is important you opt in to automatically renew the domain or make sure you’ve set a reminder for when the domain expires. It’s an extremely costly mistake if you are caught out.

Another key issue with domains is that the good domains sell very quickly. If a domain in high demand becomes available, buyers are likely to purchase the domain in seconds so it’s important you regularly monitor the market. Finally Nick Saalfeld, former editorial director for CompuServe UK, says: “You have two big choices, .com and .co.uk (and .uk). These are the most desirable.” However, the most highly regarded top-level domain (the last part of the URL) is .com. It is universally recognised and is generally the most popular and catchy. I would also advise that you buy the most popular top-level domains for your domain (if available). For example if you bought www.zzap.com you should also buy www.zzap.co.uk and www.zzap.org. The reason being is that it prevents competitors from copying your name with a different top-level domain. Moreover if someone doesn’t remember your top-level domain they may be taken to another website (or your competitors website).

Designing the perfect website

The design of a website is underrated in my opinion. Most SMEs simply want to get their products online, however they neglect how they present it. In some situations low prices and great products can be enough however competitors are often just around the corner with a new promotion or product, waiting to knock you off the top spot. For this reason I have found the presentation and design of your website to be a trump card that gives consumers that extra reason to purchase from your company. A well designed website oozes professionalism, engages the customer and enables the customer to trust the company. Do not be fooled, if there is a website with a better price, but the design of the website is unappealing, the consumer is likely to choose the well designed website for a slightly higher price. To put it simply a well designed website allows you to charge higher prices and win over consumers. A good developer will guide you through the design process, however they will often not question what you want the website to look like. However, I am here to tell you that there are correct and incorrect ways to design a website. Website design is not what you like or dislike, its a science of what will sell the most.

Key design factors:

  • A simple professional logo.
  • Easy navigation: The layout of the website has to be very easy for the customer to reach products/information. Features such as product advisors are another way to help customers to find the product they are looking for. Product advisors help customers find a product through asking questions and showing applicable products based on their answers.
  • No clutter or unnecessary information: A confusing website will put off your customers. A clean, concise website will increase sales and help the overall image of the company.
  • Good use of colours: Generally you shouldn’t use more than 3 – 4 colours on your website. Your chosen colours should be used consistently across all your marketing and are inherently linked with your brand. Generally they should be light, neutral colours that complement each other and create a professional brand image. Using one strong colour e.g. bright red, is ok as long as it is done tastefully and the remaining colours don’t conflict e.g. Vodafone’s website: www.vodafone.co.uk.
  • Professional photography: Images are so effective that entire websites can revolve around great photography. For example apple.com, one of the most profitable companies in the world, uses fantastic images to create a flawless brand image.
  • Easy to read, good looking typography: Fonts need to be easy to read and match your ‘house design’. For example if your website is minimalistic you should use a thin, clean font. Do not overlook typography, it can significantly contribute to a great brand image.
  • Responsive design: Make sure your website can work on all devices such as mobiles, tablets, etc., and across all operating systems such as android, IOS, etc. This should be mandatory. There are more consumers using mobile devices now than desktop devices (Source: comScore report). If you don’t have a responsive website you are literally throwing money away.

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  • Product videos: Videos can be an effective selling tool. In my experience they are one of the few elements of a website competitors forget to do. Product videos can be expensive, but in the long run they can yield a high return on investment.
  • Infographics: A good way to make your information come alive and be more engaging is through infographics. Infographics are a visual representation of data for example charts and diagrams.

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  • Unique and concise copy writing: Copy writing, the written material to sell your product, should be very well thought-out. It should give the customer as many selling points as possible in the shortest amount of text. Stick to this simple rule and you’ll be leagues ahead of most of your competitors.
  • Easy ways to compare products: It is important to include comparison tables in your website, especially if your products are similar.

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How to receive online payments

Taking online payments through your e-commerce website is highly recommended and pretty much mandatory. It is also strongly recommended you offer a variety of payment options to suit your different customers. To start taking payments you will need a internet merchant account and a payment gateway. A payment gateway is an intermediary between your e-commerce website and your merchant account. When a customer enters their card details, your e-commerce website will send the details to the payment gateway which will verify and process the payment. The payment gateway checks if the card information matches the information on file with the relevant credit card company and checks if the charge is approved. If everything is in order, the payment is sent to your merchant account.

Top-Payment-Gateways-eCommerce

A merchant account can be seen as a temporary account that holds money from online sales which is eventually transferred to your actual bank account. It takes around 2 to 7 days until your payment is transferred from your merchant account to your bank account. There are two types of merchant account; A dedicated merchant account and an aggregate merchant account. A dedicated merchant account is set up just for you and can be applied for at a bank. You can negotiate rates depending on your sales. The downside to this type of account is that it’s a lengthy process to apply for one. An aggregate merchant account stores your money with many other companies money in an aggregated account. The application to get connected with an aggregate merchant account is a much simpler process. The disadvantage is that rates are normally non-negotiable and you don’t have as much control over how long it takes to get your money.

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That is the basics of how to receive online payments. This topic however can become more complicated than it is, since some companies will offer a merchant account and a payment gateway together in one package with various options to integrate shopping cart features to your e-commerce website. If you’re starting a business, companies like PayPal make it easy to set up everything in one go. They are also safe and have a reputable name. However ensure you check their fee structure is acceptable for your business. Once established it may become more favourable to apply for a dedicated merchant account.

Making your website rank highly in search engines

Search engine optimisation often abbreviated as SEO is now a crucial element in website development. 93% of all online experiences begin with a search engine (Source: imforza.com). Simply put, a website with good SEO will rank higher in a search engine than a website with poor SEO. The higher your website ranks, the more people will visit your website. Google is the largest search engine with 65 – 70% market share (Source: imforza.com). Many studies have been conducted into the proportions of traffic that click on each rank position. Although it’s hard to provide definitive answers, in general the 1st ranked website for a search will receive roughly 30% of all traffic, the 2nd result receives roughly 14% and the 3rd result receives roughly 9%. In fact the first 5 results generally account for over 50% of all traffic. Traffic to the 2nd and 3rd page accounts for just over 5% of traffic (Source Moz.com). And if you’re thinking, well I will just use paid advertising, keep in mind 70 – 80% of users ignore paid ads (Source: searchenginejournal.com).

Once you get your head round those figures you will realise that SEO is a big deal. It is fundamental to online success. I have compiled a list below of the key on-site SEO tactics that can be implemented to improve your rankings. On-site SEO means modifying your website so it is optimised for search engines. Off-site SEO are tactics that are used outside of your website to improve rankings e.g. blogging. This article is about building an e-commerce website so I will stick to on-site SEO. Although the list below may seem alien to you, communicate these factors to your web developer and ask for proof that they have been implemented. Please note, in on-site SEO its good practise to target specific keywords that relate to the page, so that when these keywords are searched, your page will rank higher for them.

Key on-site SEO tactics:

  • Title tags: Ensure title tags are unique and are limited to 60 characters. Include target keywords.
  • Meta descriptions: Write an enticing description under 155 characters describing the page. Include your target keywords.
  • Permalink structure: This is basically a page’s URL. It’s best to include the target keyword in the URL when possible.
  • Headings: Include at least one H1 tag that relates to the pages topic and use other heading such as H2, H3 if they add value.
  • Images: Include at least one image and add your target keywords in the alt tag.
  • Content: Try to put around 1,000 words per page, however don’t force it. As general rule, quality always beats quantity.
  • Semantics: Don’t repeat target keywords. Use synonyms and similar phrases.
  • Site structure: Ensure any page on your website is accessible in 3 clicks from the homepage.
  • Internal linking: Link to other relevant pieces of content within your website.
  • External linking: When referencing other content on the web, use external links with relevant anchor text.

seo-big

Displaying customer reviews

I find customer reviews can be the final persuasion a buyer needs to purchase a product. A customer can be unconvinced even if the website conveys that the product can meet all their needs. No matter how many times you say customer service is your top priority, buyers know your top priority is actually your profit. For that reason, verified customer reviews are the gem of information your customer is looking for. Amazon are a great example of a company that uses product reviews to their advantage.

thumbs-good1

In order to display customer reviews it’s important to understand they have to be authentic and you have to be able to prove that. This is why Amazon is so popular – reviews are verified by a third party (amazon), so reviews cannot be faked. A way to achieve third party verification is to use independent bodies such as trustpilot.com or turntonetworks.com. This instantly gives you creditability however you have to pay particular attention to your customer service. In some cases you may have to lose money to keep the customer happy. A negative review can cost a lot of money.

If you have problems receiving reviews you need to be proactive. Make sure your developer creates an automated system that sends an email to your customer asking for feedback on their purchase. Normally emails like this don’t receive a great response rate so I find an incentive such as “complete a review over 200 words and receive 5% off all products” increases the response rate. Make sure you always ask for the customers full name, company and position to make the review appear as authentic as possible. Its also important to offer to solve any problems they have otherwise they may leave unwanted feedback.

Other considerations

This article covers the key considerations however building an e-commerce website is a complex, long and thought-out process with many variables that cannot all be discussed in one article. I have listed some other factors below that you will need to consider.

Other factors to consider:

  • Calls to action: Calls to actions are elements of your website that allow your customer to take action. For example purchase now buttons, telephone numbers, email addresses, contact pages are all ways to move the customer further along the purchasing process. Make sure there are calls to action on every page. Ideally a telephone number and email address should be in the header of your website (which is shown on every page).
  • Price: Price should always be set with the competition in mind. It’s also worth noting if your offering is significantly better than the competition don’t be afraid to set a higher price. In fact, in some situations setting a higher price gives consumers the illusion that your product is somehow better even if it’s relatively the same. Your price should also reflect your brand. If you’re trying to make a high quality premium brand, your prices should reflect that and visa versa. Every market is different, so play around with different prices and learn how your market responds.
  • Shipping: Again, keep the competition in mind. If your competitors all charge for shipping, you may want to increase your product price but offer free shipping. Whatever makes you stand out. In general, consumers will appreciate free shipping because it keeps things simple. It’s also a good idea to clearly display your shipping costs & services on your website. If they are hidden, the customer is likely to think, “if they’re hiding the shipping cost, what else are they hiding?” which will reduce the customers confidence in your company.

Offering a wide selection of different couriers is overrated. I would use one shipping company so you get as much volume discount as possible. Try to make your main service a 24 hour delivery. Quick delivery times are a great way to keep your business efficient and your customers happy.

  • Returns, warranties and payment methods: This information needs to be presented clearly and should be easy to access. Customers will appreciate if the information is written clearly and concisely so they know where they stand. Don’t try to fool customers, it doesn’t work. Returns & warranties in particular can be used to beat the competition. For example the competition normally compare price and product, however offering a longer warranty is sometimes the perfect way to gain more business.
  • Terms & conditions: It’s always good to have terms and conditions that you can rely on if customer disputes get messy. Advisors will say you need legal experts to draw up T & C’s however there are plenty of templates online which do the job especially when you are starting out.
  • Shopping cart abandonment recovery: If a customer abandons their shopping cart, a good tactic is to make sure they are followed up with reminder emails asking them if they want to continue with their purchase.
  • Security & privacy: It’s always good practise to display the security measures you are taking to handle online payments e.g. SSL encryption. Ensure you explain to the customer what these security measures mean. You also need to state what personal data you will store and what it is used for e.g. you store email addresses so that you can communicate order information to the customer.
  • Frequently asked questions: FAQ’s is a good way to absorb customer questions to save you and your staff time.

How to drive traffic to your website

Once you have an e-commerce website it isn’t just plain sailing from there. Your main priority should now shift to driving traffic (people) to your website to increase your chances of making a sale. This is a huge topic on its own with various strategies you can use, however I will outline the key areas. First and foremost there is paid traffic. Paid traffic is when you create an advertisement like the image below on the left. This advertisement is then shown when certain words or phrases are searched in a search engine such as Google. The advertisement will appear around the natural results (the second image below shows the paid advertisements in the red boxes). When a person clicks on the advertisement you pay a certain amount which you have previously agreed upon. If you pay more money per click, the advertisement will be shown more often and will appear higher in the results therefore increasing the chances that someone will click on it. Remarketing is another form of paid advertising which focuses on displaying advertisements to a person that has recently viewed your website. Overall paid advertising is a great way to receive targeted traffic, however it’s essential you work out your return on investment to see if it is worthwhile. The program that manages paid traffic for Google is called “Adwords” and is the most popular paid advertising platform.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 20.31.08ppc-ads-example-600x520

Another widespread marketing tactic to drive traffic is SEO. As I mentioned above your e-commerce website should be search engine optimised however there are also external tactics you can use to increase your natural rank in Google (see the image above. The natural results are not in the red boxes). To name a few; social media, blogs, review and forum submissions, directory submissions, social bookmarking, link exchange and link baiting are just some of the tactics used to increase your website rank in a search engine. Again this is a huge topic in itself. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, I would recommend hiring a SEO specialist who’s job it is to increase your rank. SEO specialists provide monthly ranking and traffic reports so you can monitor their progress. SEO takes a lot more time than paid traffic however once your website achieves a high rank it becomes very cost effective since you are not paying for every click.

Monitoring how many people visit your website and how they respond

Once your e-commerce website is up and running it’s highly recommended to monitor and analyse how customers are responding to it. In a brick and mortar store you can observe customers behaviour and modify your business accordingly. The equivalent in online retailing is to use monitoring programs such as Google Analytics (the most trusted and well known monitoring program). However monitoring programs can be even more useful since they can monitor a whole host of factors. Many companies specialise solely on monitoring websites and advising businesses.

The main feature of Google Analytics is to monitor the number of people (traffic) that visit your website which can then be compared with previous days/months/years. This can be further broken down e.g. how long people spent on each page, the amount of pages each customer viewed, the country they came from, the browser they were using, the pages they visited, the device they were using, the number of people that actually ‘converted’ and bought a product, the list goes on. This information can then be used to analyse how your website can be modified to increase sales.

google-screenshot-1

 

Google analytics and other monitoring programs are easy to set up. They normally provide a snippet of HTML which you or your developer have to insert on every page of your website (customers won’t see it) and this gives the program the information it needs to monitor traffic. It is also easy to add additional users to your account. So for example your developer can login into your account and monitor the account for you. It’s worth noting you can also monitor competitor websites using various websites such as semrush.com or urlspy.co.uk.

SEMrush-Competitor-research-tool

Conclusion

It is all too easy to think the internet won’t affect your business however as time goes on businesses without an online presence will be at a distinct disadvantage. It’s a simple decision, either act now and take advantage of an opportunity to increase sales or lose sales to competitors. I have outlined the key factors that need to be considered to build an e-commerce website however as I mentioned earlier, hiring a good web developer is invaluable in order to create your perfect e-commerce website. Although having an e-commerce website is now seen to be a requirement for your business, I like to see it as a huge opportunity to increase profit. And in the end, no matter what others say, profit is the bottom line.

References

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/business/sme-home/news/11664824/sme-step-up-digital.html

http://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2012/oct/19/businesses-need-websites

http://www.verdictretail.com/uk-online-retail-sales-to-reach-62-7bn-in-2020/

https://econsultancy.com/blog/66007-uk-online-retail-sales-to-reach-52-25bn-in-2015-report/

http://startups.co.uk/choosing-a-domain-name/

http://www.cio.com/article/2385250/online-marketing/13-simple-tips-for-improving-your-web-design.html

https://www.imforza.com/blog/8-seo-stats-that-are-hard-to-ignore/

https://moz.com/blog/google-organic-click-through-rates-in-2014

http://webrunnermedia.com/seo-checklist/

http://www.thesitewizard.com/archive/creditcards.shtml

https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/234131

http://cart66.com/blog/payment-gateway-vs-merchant-account/

http://www.web-merchant.co.uk/onlinepayments.asp

http://www.comentum.com/comentum-ecommerce/guide-to-merchant-accounts-payment-gateways.html

http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/should-you-hire-designer-use-web-builder/

http://www.skilledup.com/articles/web-developers-vs-web-builders

http://online-behavior.com/analytics/actionable-tips

https://moz.com/ugc/21offpage-seo-strategies-to-build-your-online-reputation

http://www.smartinsights.com/mobile-marketing/mobile-marketing-analytics/mobile-marketing-statistics/

http://best-merchant-accounts.co.uk/blog/what-is-a-merchant-account-and-how-do-they-work/

https://www.shopify.com/blog/6614567-how-to-ensure-your-merchant-account-application-is-approved

Cash versus card payments

It is common knowledge that in recent years card and electronic payments have become more prevalent. The question is, what are the benefits and pitfalls of cash and card. Knowledge is power. To make informed decisions about your payment processes is a key step in streamlining your business and finding the most cost effective solution for your business.

Cash

Payments reached a historic milestone in 2004 where debit card spending (£272 billion) overtook cash spending (£269 billion)(Source The UK Card Association). However this takes into account business and financial organisations. Among private consumers, cash is the most popular payment method. In fact private consumers account for 99% of cash payments and used cash for 52% of their transactions. 56% of all cash payments were for £5 or less (Source: Payment council).

The organisation which represents the payment industry, states that by 2024 cash will be used for 30% of payments. Despite this ATMs increased to a new peak in 2014 at 69,382 with consumers withdrawing a total of £189 billion. Moreover only 4.4% of adults rarely use cash at all. David Hensley, the director of the payments industry body said “Cash remains a vital part of our day-to-day lives and is still the most attractive or only option in lots of situations. We continue to value notes and coins so highly for their familiarity and widespread acceptance.”

The type of business also has an impact on cash usage. 8 out of 10 purchases in pubs, clubs and newsagents were paid in cash, however 3 out of 10 purchases were made in cash at petrol stations. Payments under £1 for telephone boxes and car parks have dropped sharply. It is worth noting cash in the UK will see a large revamp with the introduction of new polymer banknotes and the new £1 coin which is suspected to make a dent in the cash usage decline.

Cash has been around since the 15th century, everybody knows what it is and how to use it. Consumers will choose cash because it is convenient, it has less security risks i.e. you never lose more than what you have in your wallet, it allows consumers to be more attuned with their spending, there is no need to reconcile receipts to your credit card statement and the list goes on. For this reason it is an attractive option to pay in cash. It also costs very little for a business to accept cash if the business has effective cash handling processes in place.  The result is cash is a widely accepted, popular and cost effective way to accept payment.

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As I mentioned, accepting cash payments costs very little when effective cash handling processes are in place. With the help of POS systems and cash handling equipment, handling cash payments has become easier, more efficient and reduces the risks associated with cash handling. For example counting and checking money can be time consuming however a banknote counter or a coin counter & sorter can do the same task more than twenty times quicker. From small to large volumes of cash it’s always worth investing in effective cash equipment and establishing clearly defined cash handling processes for staff to follow.

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One of the disadvantages of accepting cash which causes problems for businesses around the globe is counterfeit money. Nearly £5 million worth of counterfeit banknotes in the UK were removed from circulation in 2015. In fact, percentage-wise British pound sterling is one of the most counterfeited currencies in the world. The most counterfeited UK banknote was the £20 banknote. Ever since banknotes were invented they have been forged. Consequently it is always a good idea to check your banknotes when you are accepting them to make sure they are genuine especially in situations where you cannot see the banknotes clearly.

Counterfeit banknotes are worthless and if accepted there is no compensation which ultimately is deducted from your net profit. It is a criminal offence to hold onto or trade counterfeit notes. If you think a banknote is counterfeit you must hand in the banknote to the police where they will give you a receipt and send it to the Bank of England for analysis. If the banknote is genuine they will reimburse you.

In order to detect a counterfeit banknote, The Bank of England designs security features on all banknotes that can be checked to see if a banknote is genuine. Below is an example of the security features for a £20 banknote.

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(Source: Bank of England)

The majority of the time checking security features is too time consuming especially if you have a long queue of people wanting to be served or there is a high volume of cash to be checked. As a result many retailers use counterfeit detectors which can detect counterfeits in less than a second with up to 100% accuracy. Below I have explained the advantages of each type of counterfeit detector in order for you to make a more informed decision.

Banknote checker pens are the cheapest form of counterfeit detection. They detect if a banknote is made from paper (used in some counterfeit banknotes) or fibre based paper (used in genuine banknotes). A dark stain appears on the banknote if the banknote is made of paper. If the banknote is genuine it cause little or no discolouration. Although cost effective, pens can be unreliable. A seasoned counterfeiter will almost certainly use fibre based counterfeits to avoid detection by counterfeit detector pens.

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UV (ultraviolet) banknote detectors illuminate invisible UV marks printed on banknotes. If the UV marks do not illuminate, the banknote is very likely to be counterfeit (unless it has been through the wash or similar). Also used to detect non-currency such as driving licences and bank cards, UV detectors are a cheap and effective way to verify items. It is worth noting the Bank of England advises that UV detectors should be 365nm (the correct UV frequency) and LEDs should not be used to effectively detect counterfeits.

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Automatic banknote detectors are more expensive than pen and UV detectors, generally costing from £80 to £100 however they are the most accurate and fastest way to detect a counterfeit banknote. They take less than half a second to verify a banknote. If the banknote is counterfeit it will alert you with a visual and audio warning. You can expect to detect a number of counterfeits, so they more often than not offer a healthy return on investment. They also take away the hassle and time consuming task of checking banknotes manually.

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As well as counterfeiting, cash needs security to reduce the risk of robbery or even internal theft. Again, cash handling firms have the answer. POS safes are specially designed to be mounted to your countertop so any excess cash from your cash drawer can be conveniently put into the safe below.

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Overall it is essential to accept cash payments in most brick-and-mortar establishments. It is the most cost effective method for small businesses and it is widely accepted. However many retailers forget that cash handling can be streamlined to save a lot of time and money. To accept cash and not streamline your cash handling process is a costly mistake for any business.

Card

Card payments started in the 1950s aimed at diners that operated as charge cards (Source: The UK Card Association). Since then card payment technology has advanced rapidly so much so that at the end of 2011 there were 165.1 million cards in issue (Source The UK Card Association).

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Research by EE in 2015 found that 25% of shoppers have completely abandoned a purchase because they did not have cash and the shop didn’t accept cards. The same research found 4 out of 5 consumers expect to have the option to pay by card with nearly a third of consumers preferring to pay with contactless because of its speed.

Its easy to see why card payments have become increasingly popular over the years. Consumers can access their bank accounts 24/7 and cards are accepted just about anywhere in the world. They are a fast, simple and safe way to make a purchase. Card issuers also offer different types of cards to suit different needs; Credit cards replace cheques, debit cards replace cash and prepaid cards are used by stores as gift cards. Another clear advantage of card payments is that it enables consumers to clearly track expenses. Card companies will also argue that cards are safer than carrying cash or using cheques since they can be replaced and consumers have limited liability if a card is stolen.

The statistics and market research heavily support the argument to accept card payments however it is all too easy for a business (especially a SME) to overlook the disadvantages and not prepare accordingly. Firstly, it is not as easy as simply opening an account and voilà you can accept card payments. It can be a frustrating and lengthy process. It was found that the 83% of businesses that do not currently accept card payments said they considered using them but 77% said they had little or no understanding of how card payments work (Source: British SME).

If you are in the vast majority of SMEs who have little understanding of card payments it is worth knowing that UK card payment providers can pull the wool over your eyes all too easily. For example they may hide fees in your merchant statements which add up in the long run. PCI fees can be unnecessarily high and minimum monthly service charges can also add to your costs. Miscellaneous fees can also be charged and it can be difficult to find out what they actually refer to. Furthermore long contract periods make it hard for you to leave. Setting up card payments is a topic in itself. For now I intend just to point out that accepting card payments is not all plain sailing.

In addition to setting up an account, there is the risk of card fraud. Fraud is a significant problem in the UK which costs millions of pounds. Cards are stolen at various places, the most popular places being restaurants, retails stores and at ATMs. Although UK card holders are not financially liable for fraud, small business owners and the banks get the tab. Firstly if the business delivers the product, the business already loses the product unless the police are able to recover it, which is unlikely. Secondly the bank may look to the business for reimbursement for permitting the fraudulent transaction.

There are however preventative measures you can take. An effective technique to spot a counterfeit card is to check the UV mark under a ultraviolet light detector. Most cards have a UV marking which illuminates under ultraviolet light. If there is no UV mark, be very cautious. It is worth noting most cards are chip and PIN which is a new security measure to reduce fraud. Be cautious if the customer is using a non-chip and PIN card and be sure to implement extra checks.

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If you are unsure about the authenticity of the card you can also ask the customer to write their signature without looking at the card and then check this alongside the signature on the card. Often you can tell straight away if they can’t reproduce the signature. Another underrated method of detecting card fraud is simply using a gut feeling. If theres a new customer making a large order and they look uneasy or nervous, consider calling their cards provider to verify their identity or even get the bank to call the card owner for verification.

It is worth noting some legitimate cardholders will purchase goods then claim they didn’t receive the items so they get them for free. This is especially prevalent on online purchases. You can prevent this type of fraud by choosing delivery methods that are “signed for” and tracked so that it proves they received the item. Alternatively, if the product is purchased in-store, be sure to keep internal records that can prove the item was purchased e.g. receipts or CCTV footage.

Overall due to the increasing popularity of card payments every business should now accept this method of payment in order to future proof their business. However it is key to read your contract in depth and highlight any areas of concern with your point of contact. If you don’t, you risk entering into a long contract with high fees which is hard to leave. It is also always worth enforcing fraud preventative processes in your business so that you have a consistent level of protection against fraudsters.

Last word

It is clear that cash and card should be accepted due to their widespread popularity. Both can be a safe and efficient means of payment however both have their clear disadvantages that need to be tackled head on. A misinformed business owner could easily lose money through inefficient cash handling, accepting counterfeits, high card payment fees, card fraud and so on. This article has highlighted the key pitfalls however I encourage you to research the specific areas that are most applicable to your business to understand the step by step actions that need to be taken.

References

http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/may/21/card-automated-payments-overtake-cash-first-time-payments-council

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32778196

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/Pages/home.aspx

http://mainlinepayments.com/why-take-cards/

http://blog.payleven.co.uk/interesting-facts-about-card-payments/

https://www.mastercard.com/us/company/en/docs/Benefits_of_Payment_Cards_to_Consumers.pdf

https://www.barclaycard.co.uk/business/accepting-payments/payment-security/fraud-management/types-of-fraud#tabbox0

http://smallbusiness.chron.com/can-business-prevent-credit-card-fraud-1524.html

https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-cards/merchants-victims-credit-card-fraud/

The real truth behind finding a viable business idea.

Have you got the motivation but haven’t got the idea? Have you tried to execute an idea but it just seems to fizzle into nothing or make a measly profit? Do people give you business advice and supposedly smart ideas but they never have any real substance? Welcome to one of the most frustrating times of being an entrepreneur. I was that person once. In this article I aim to tell you the hard truth about finding a business idea and the real factors you need to take into consideration. I don’t believe in waiting for a lightbulb moment, I believe in creating your own opportunities here and now.

Are you wasting your time?

Firstly you need find out whether you’re wasting your time. Ask yourself the question “what do you want to accomplish and why are you looking to start a business”. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the most successful people on the planet, once said the answer you want to hear is “I want to be a champion and I will do whatever it takes to become a champion” he went on to say “you can detect right away those that are going to be shakey and will fall behind”. Click here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOUVkISESKc) to watch the full video.

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This attitude is fundamental. It is the most powerful tool you will have to becoming successful. In business but also in life. Not having a business idea is a minor setback but your attitude is everything. You have to know deep down in your bones that you’re not going to give up until you find a feasible idea. I know that attitude is what enabled me hit on an idea and develop it into a successful business. It all depends on how bad you want it. I would go so far as to say that if you are extremely determined and learn from your mistakes, you will eventually set up a successful business, it’s simply a matter of time.

Very successful people, think in absolutes. It helps get rid of the distraction of plan B so they can focus on plan A. Will Smith is know for his work ethic and describes in 4 minutes in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVdEQrKrEms that the only difference he sees in himself that is different to others is that he will not be outworked. Once you understand the attitude and mentality of successful people, it will take you to the next level and enable you to successfully find and develop a business idea.

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In summary, you can’t be one of those people that dabble with ideas here and there and doesn’t fully commit. If you’re going to land on an idea and develop it into a successful business that can actually pay your mortgage and eventually make you wealthy, you have to commit 100% to it. Your work ethic has to be spot on, you have to be consistent and you’re going to have to believe in yourself no matter what. Do this and you have created the foundation of a successful entrepreneur. If you feel this just isn’t you then you may want to reconsider setting up your own business.

Its all about you

There are various ways to find the right business idea for you. The first place I would start is to ask yourself what you are passionate about. Dig deep down and have a good think about what you really like. What turns you on. Its important that you don’t put limitations on yourself, I find that sometimes you have to imagine asking yourself at age 10 or 12 “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. Granted you may have said something ridiculous but more often than not you can find a truth about yourself. At this age you haven’t developed a perception of what is realistic for you so it will give you an honest interpretation of what you really did love before life got in the way. It may not be a business idea, it may be a hobby or a sport, but its likely to be something you’ve always been interested in, something that you’ve always gravitated to. 

Some entrepreneurs are passionate about their product or service but some are passionate about business as a whole. Making money and being in business in general can be a passion. For example Richard Branson is not passionate about the product or service every one of his 400 companies offers, but he does have a talent and a passion for business in general. The key at this stage is to know what you’re passionate about however broad it may be and try not think of it as a business idea. It just has to feel right.  Have a good think about your passions and write them down.

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Gallup, a Washington, D.C. based polling organisation polled over 25 million employees and found only 13% felt engaged with their job or in other words felt a sense of passion for their job. To be truly passionate about your business idea will already put you leagues ahead of others and enable you to persevere when others can’t. Not to mention, you will be happier! Doing a job you love can change your life. Finding your passion should be a top priority in your life, yet so many of us put it to the bottom of our to-do-list. Its always surprising how the most fundamental questions in life are often ignored and the most distracting/non-important issues are pursed. Why? Because it’s hard and it takes time. It may mean you have turn your life upside down to pursue a crazy passion of yours and the pain of doing that is too much for most people. But deep down, under that fear, you know pursuing your passion is the right thing to do. Its worth noting, the younger you are, the easier it is to pursue a passion, so if you are young capitalise on this. Younger people have less commitments and are judged less, but have no more reason than others to pursue their passion.

The next task is to understand what you’re good at. Sometimes there are one or two thoughts that spring to mind, sometimes not. If you struggle to know what you’re good at try asking your friends and family that you trust. Don’t get trapped into thinking you’re not good at anything. You’re always going to be better at some things than others. Even if you’re not above average at anything, you need to find a few things that you are better at. What is your strongest area, not in relation to other people, but a strong area for you as an individual. Try not think about learned skill sets from your previous or current job, try to think where your natural talents lie. Things that you seem to pick up straight away and are comfortable with.

Remember none of these task should be taken lightly. It may be a long process finding what you’re good at. It may mean you have to try different areas e.g. it may be finance, a sport, business acumen, persuasiveness, being funny. It could be anything. You may have to look far and wide. Write everything down you’re good at or anything you see yourself having potential in. Sometimes it may not be necessary to look far and wide to know what you’re good at, it may already be clear to you, which in that case is perfect, just make sure you’re being true to yourself.

You may even be very talented at various things but you’re never going to be great at everything. Once you know what you’re good at, you can then delegate the work you’re not good at. Such a simple concept yet such a fundamental one. Richard Branson is classic example of business man that delegates exceptionally well. He is not a professional in every one of his companies, but the people he employs are. See in 20 minutes 10 seconds in the video here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNtGnO-xV3c) of Richard Branson stating if he had to choose the most important factor to success it would be looking for the best in the other people.

Finding the right idea

Now you know what you are passionate about and what you are good at, this is one of the very few times you will be able to create wonderful synergies. Once you are already committed to a business its a lot more painful to go back to the drawing board. So its important to get this right now rather than later. Firstly prioritise your lists so you put what you are most passionate about and good at, at the top of the list. You want to be looking at the list and start making connections. Your passion may be that you love business so then you marry that up with an area you’re good at. For example if you love business and you’ve always been good at writing, you could look to create a blog and eventually monetise traffic. Another example is if you’ve always loved driving and you’ve got a warm personality, you may think of setting up a youtube channel reviewing cars. you’re going to be more involved at the early stages of starting your first business so any pervious experience is very useful (but not mandatory).

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it has to be in a sexy or up and coming idea. In fact, there are often lucrative opportunities in the less attractive markets. For example if you’re passionate about business and you have no other real interests, you may want to enter markets others don’t want to e.g. the waste industry. For this reason, unattractive markets often have great opportunities. And remember after a few years you can employ people to do the dirty work for you.

Look far and wide at the markets surrounding your areas on your list. Try to narrow down a specific industry that suits your strengths and passions then look for gaps in the market. There is an abundance of opportunities, there is a just a lack of people that are willing and able to execute them. In order to find gaps in the market you have to look at various factors. For example are prices too high in the market, is the market lacking innovation, is there a lack of competitors for a certain product, are there no strong brands in the market, has the market got a weak online presence, etc. Keep looking for what the market is lacking and use your common sense. It is likely there will be a niche in the market that has not been capitalised on. If you can offer a product or service that the market is lacking, it allows you to to gain market share and from there on it is much easier to expand into other broader areas. It is critical to find your unique success factor that will set your business apart from the rest. This will form the core of your business.

To land on an idea that has clear potential and matches your passion and strengths is the holy grail. The most underrated way to find this idea is to make it your job to find it. Contrary to popular belief, you should not be waiting until you get a light bulb moment or wait until you feel you have experience. You should be actively looking for it day in, day out. You should be researching your chosen markets in depth and pursuing all possible opportunities to see if they are viable. Look all over the web, visit business to business sourcing websites, telephone competitors posing as a customer to glean information, try selling one or two products on ebay or to your next door neighbours to test the market, work out profit margins, research what people really want, etc. Hustle your way to the right idea, don’t sit back and wait for it to happen. Regularly watching interviews of successful entrepreneurs is great way to gain valuable advice and keep motivations levels high.

Consistency is where most people fail, they may not hit on an idea for a day (or even a month) and they give up. It is all about consistency, it is generally a long process but if you keep searching and learn from your mistakes, you will eventually find something. This stage will test your character because there are no perceived results until you land on an idea. Instead think of it as a numbers game, the more you research, the higher chance you have of landing a viable idea. Its also good practise to take a step back and see if the logic adds up. Don’t go ahead with an idea just because you’re desperate to start a business, this is not smart and it will waste your time. Be patient and regularly take a step back to see if your idea really makes sense and has a genuine chance of being profitable.

Another common problem is that your ideas may seem farfetched. They’re not. For that very reason many people will not attempt your idea because they don’t believe it can happen. You have to stop your limiting beliefs from shrouding your judgement and think to yourself what would you truly love to do. Entrepreneurship is a long journey. You may think it is farfetched now, but if you worked on your idea for the next 10 years with a clear passion and belief, it starts to become realistic.

In fact the bigger the dream the better. See at 1 minutes 27 seconds in the video here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oggBuErk1Wk) of Larry Page (co-founder of google) stating that you have to have a big enough goal that you will be excited to be working on for the next 10 years. If your idea doesn’t get you excited, it is not for you. Generally when you think big, you get more excited of the possibilities. Its also important to generate a vision of what your company will look like in the future and that vision has to excite you. Arnold Schwarzenegger repeatedly mentions that having a vision was a key to his success and that he didn’t even need to motivate himself much, rather his vision was so exciting it pulled him towards his goal. See at 1 minute 49 seconds in the video here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5_iSrU7or8) he talks about his vision for bodybuilding (which he also stated that he used in acting and politics).

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Last word

Being an entrepreneur without an idea can be extremely frustrating and depressing. Life is too short to wait for the perfect idea and situation. Leaving your dream life to chance is not something you should be willing to do. Find what you’re passionate about, find what you’re good at, research markets extensively and don’t give up. Confucius, the most famous Chinese philosopher once said “He who says he can, and he who says he can’t, are both usually right”.

Learn your own way. The most underrated key to success.

Are you regularly influenced by others opinions? Do you read business advice and self-help? If so, you’re in the majority. But ask yourself honestly, have other opinions made a significant positive impact on your success?

If there’s so much good advice out there that works, why is it 99% of people still fail? Why is it only the elite that actually achieve massive success? Why is it, you can’t help thinking the self-help guru is only there to make money rather than actually help you? Why is it you can’t help thinking you’re missing something to achieve the real success you are after?

Question the norm

Steven Spielberg once said “your instincts and human intuition always whispers, it never shouts. Its very hard to hear.” In a world full of information being thrown in your face on what should and shouldn’t be done, we forget to listen to the most important voice, ourselves.

I love hearing others advice, I love self-help and I love the whole idea of progressing myself. Like Tony Robins says “progress equals happiness”. The right advice can be a catalyst. It can speed up and supplement your journey to success. The question you should be asking is, what is the formula?

The formula is you. There are 7 billion people on earth and every single person is different. Yet every single piece of advice you will ever receive is not truly tailored to anyone except the person that said it. The truth is, it’s all about you. If you want to become truly successful you’re going to have to start looking at yourself for the answers. It’s so cliché I know, but then again I think clichés are often the truth, its just people find them too hard to follow.

We live in soup of mediocrity that is thrust upon us, driven by social norms and the fear of failure. It suffocates most people and limits a persons true potential. The bigger your dreams, the harder you have to fight to keep them alive. To achieve great success you need to challenge the norm. Your friends, your mentors, your parents. Everyone is just a product of his or her own experiences. If you want to achieve real success, you have to break free of the mould.

Steve Jobs, one of the most successful people on the planet once said, “Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”

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Shut the world out

I find sometimes you have to shut the world out and the influence from others and learn your own way to success. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said “Dig deep down and ask yourself who do you want to be, not what your parents or teachers want, but you, I’m talking about figuring out what makes you happy”. Answering those deep questions about yourself already puts you leagues ahead of most people. You’re starting to learn about yourself.

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If you really want to progress, its essential to be true to yourself. Most of us see what we want to see. We’ll purposely focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. We’ll avoid the Skeleton in our closet because it hurts. However what has been forgotten is that it is the hard to deal with subjects that are the most rewarding to overcome. The game changers. The subjects only you can tackle.

Just imagine if every time you made a mistake you wrote down what you did wrong and how you could have prevented it. And you had done this for years, reviewed it and adding to it everyday. Just imagine how valuable that document would be. Your own self-help book. The best advice you’ll ever get!

Your own words will trigger a motivation that can be rarely felt from others. You can read about other people’s advice all over the Internet but do you take it in with complete conviction or do you carry on reading another article and forget it the next day. Sometimes it’s necessary to learn the hard way to really get the point. To feel the emotion, to live it and really learn from it.

Now we have the Internet we are force fed information from others. As you know, we are bombarded with advertisements, advice on how to live your life and what you should act like and look like. Isn’t it funny how the top personalities that we are led to be like are all very distinct. There is no right way. That is exactly one of the reasons why they are where they are; they have carved their own path and are true expression of themselves. You will never be the best copycat; you can only be the best you can be. That’s what makes people great.

Do it your own way

In essence its all about gradually teaching yourself to be the best you can be. Record your failures and your achievements and learn from them in a disciplined way. This sounds so basic, but often the truth is. Think of the millions of people that complain day in day out, yet do the same things every single day. People become set in their ways and improving themselves is off the agenda. Change to them is not welcomed, it’s feared.

In fact there’s probably only one significant thing that is holding you back and you avoid it. It could be anything, perhaps work ethic or productivity or confidence. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent and that’s where you have to put the work in. But when you find it and relentlessly work on it, that’s when the real change happens. That’s when you start breaking the mould and moving towards success.

I encourage you to think for yourself without other people’s influence and discover what you truly want. And work at it like there is no tomorrow. Instead of educating yourself from others, ask the most qualified person to answer that question, yourself. As Margret Thatcher said “Don’t follow the crowd, let the crowd follow you”.

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By its very nature it is hard to define exactly what should be done because the whole point is that it is specific to you. You need to make your own plan. Start with what do you want, what are you good at and how can you go about getting it? Forget about any plan that was laid out before you. This is the time to be true to yourself.

So what’s the catch? It’s extremely difficult. Unlike reading a ‘10 tips to get rich’ article, you have to face the cold hard truth, which many people can’t do. You have to consistently seek your weaknesses and improve them. No article is going to tell you what they are. You have to work it out yourself. It takes a lot of time, it takes patience and it takes steely determination.

Last word

Truly great people understand themselves. They understand who they are and what they want. They don’t listen to what they should do and what you shouldn’t do. What is right and what is wrong. They selectively listen to others opinions but they are acutely aware only they know what is truly best for them.

I believe when we work it out ourselves and listen carefully to that whisper of intuition, that’s when the real change happens. I believe the right advice can be helpful but it doesn’t guarantee success the same way it did for the person who spoke it. I believe we write our own keys to success.

Starting a brick & mortar business. The things they don’t tell you

Starting a business can be the key to your dream life or be the bane of your life. Do it right and you can achieve wealth, success and freedom. Do it wrong and you could end up owing people, losing your social life and being the failure you don’t want to be. Having gained a 1st class honours in business and enterprise and also establishing a successful business I can relate to the disparity between academic literature and the reality. Therefore my main aim is to give you my opinion of just some of the cold hard facts and get right down to the basics of starting a business.

The Vision

Before we delve into the details of setting up a business. First and foremost you need a vision. You need to know what it is you want to start and what you want it to become. I cannot emphasise this enough. A vision gives you guidance and is at the heart of all the decisions you make.

Make sure your vision of the business is unique and is doing something clearly better than the competition and preferably something the competition cant copy. In my experience you also need a strong brand that people will buy into and give your business an identity. An identity that is inherently linked with your vision.

Don’t be mistaken that because your vision for the business should be unique, that you should invent something. Some of the most successful business in the world have taken an existing product or service and simply made it better.

Market research

Without market research you are blind. You cannot see who your customers are, how many of them there are and whether they will be interested in your product. Of course, you can learn some of this information once you establish the business but it will be too late by then and you’re more likely to fail.

Firstly find out the size of your target market. These are the people you will be targeting and it’s important to know how many of them there really are. If there aren’t enough customers, there isn’t enough need for the product and you will fail.

A simple method I use is;

  • Research and make an informed decision on what will be the average customer spend on your products.
  • Work out how many customers you need per day/month/ year to make a worthwhile profit.
  • Work out the size of your target market within a radius of the possible locations (who you think will travel to your business) and couple that with footfall statistics.

From this information you will be able to get a picture of whether your market can support your business and what percentage of your target market you need to sell to in order to be successful. It is also a good way to determine what location would offer the most customers.

This is a huge topic in itself, which you can find an endless amount of information however a general rule you don’t come across often is it to be pessimistic with figures. I sometimes half my target market then work from those figures. If you find you are being pessimistic with figures and you still can support your business, you’re on to a winner. You never know what will happen to your market, and having a buffer can be the difference between success and failure.

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Competitors

Competitor analysis is normally left as part of the market research however do not be fooled by its low priority. Your competitors will shape your business in practically every way. They are a constant threat, and as I mention to many budding entrepreneurs, if your not always progressing, you’re falling behind. I say this because of competition.

When starting a business you need to know everything about the competition. Absolutely everything. You need to know your competition as much as you know your own business. What do they offer, what is their customer service like, what are their prices, what marketing do they use, what’s their turnover/profit etc.

This means going undercover. Visit their shop frequently, enquire on price lists, talk to their customer advisors and obtain as much information from them and do it often. What this means is that you can get an accurate picture of the competitor landscape so you can see the opportunities and threats in your market. Grab the opportunities and protect yourself from the threats. This strategy alone can be priceless. For example companies such as Pepsi will base a majority of their marketing strategy on Coca Cola’s marketing activities. Too many businesses focus too much on their own business rather than focusing on external factors and as a result they get left behind.

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Marketing

Marketing is the way you get your customers to know what your business is and what it can do for them. In a nutshell, you need to get to know the most cost-effective way to convince potential customers to buy your products.

Literature will tell you that you need to focus on your target market and do this by marketing through different mediums such as magazines, flyers, website. This is all true and effective. However I would like to emphasise being different.

As Richard Branson says “Don’t think what’s the cheapest way to do it or the what’s the fastest way to do it… think what’s the most amazing way to do it”. Take your idea and make it as unique and engaging as it can be. For example take a car showroom. “Try to think outside the box” as Arnold Schwarzenegger says. For example get all your most high-priority customers and invite them on a free track day to experience their prospective car in a new light and even make it a regular event. It engages the customers and forms a unique relationship with them. It also can lead to great PR opportunities.

Start up capital

Starting a brick and mortar business has the burden of fixed costs and high capital costs i.e leasing, utility bills, renovation etc. This means 2 things: you need to hit the ground running i.e. you need to make profit as quickly as possible or you will default on your costs. And secondly you need cost effective funding that’s not going to cost you the earth.

When figuring how much start-up capital you need, make a detailed list of absolutely everything you require. Attention to detail is key. For example if you’re a restaurant business, make sure you account for the smallest of costs i.e. napkins or candles. The more thorough you are the less likely you will be hit by unforeseen costs which can ultimately lead to poor cash flow, which is the number one reason for business start up failures.

Once you have your capital figure, most people would say just borrow that amount. What I advise is to borrow more if possible, say 1 – 10% more depending on how confident you are with your capital figure. You don’t want to be in the situation where you have miscalculated your start capital (which is very likely) and you can’t finish the project to a good standard because you’re out of cash. Don’t settle. Make it the business you see in your vision, not subpar.

Someone once told me “the best mortgage is no mortgage”. There are many finance options available in today’s market, however to borrow money costs in some form or the other. As general rule you should always try to grow a company organically (without external funding). It’s starts your company in a healthy financial situation albeit you may not have as much capital but it reduces the risk and pressure of borrowing money.

External funding however normally is the only way for most of us. If you go down this root, be smart. Discover all the finance options available starting with government-backed schemes. The government offers grants and subsidised funding which dramatically reduces the costs of borrowing. If government funding is not available then make sure you research all your finance options and negotiate the best rates.

Premises & Operations

Your business premises will be your home for the coming years and will be where everything takes place. Location is nearly always the most vital factor when considering a premise. You will be looking at different factors depending on the business your establishing i.e. an import/export warehouse will need a different location to a hairdressers. Get the location right and you can afford to make some other mistakes along the way. For example a poorly run pop-up stall next to a high foot fall area is likely to make more money than a very well run pop-up stall in a low foot fall area.

One thing I would like to highlight which isn’t mentioned often is if you can’t find the right place. It is all good saying what the best location is however theory is different to practise. I would say if your 80% sure it’s the right place, go ahead. If you wait for 100% sure, you will be waiting your whole life. If you’re not sure or your gut instinct says otherwise, wait for the right place. This can be very frustrating when you have the momentum behind you then you have to continue with your day job, however you have to tell yourself, what would you rather a failed business or to wait longer?

In terms of the actual building make sure it fits your vision. Its all about achieving a balance between your vision and over-spending. Your aim should be to achieve your vision with the least amount of cost and to be within budget. Don’t under spend and don’t overspend. Easier said than done. What I recommend is to evaluate everything in terms of business, not what you like or what your partner likes, but what will the customer like.

You are not making decisions for your home; you are making every single decision based on what will increase profit. Thinking this way is an effective attribute for success.

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Operations

Operations I define as the day to day running of the business. Operations should be about efficiency. Time is litterly money. In a restaurant business bringing the food out late means less customers can be served in a given period of time translating to less sales. I wont bore you with more examples. In essence the balance here is with efficiency and customer satisfaction. To be very efficient and offer great customer service is the Holy Grail.

When you purchase equipment you should also think efficiency. Equipment such as banknote counters and coin counters & sorters can count up to 27x faster than you can. Even if you deal with a small amount of cash, this purchase is a no brainer. Companies such as ZZap (www.zzaponline.com) have revolutionised this industry so small companies can now afford to purchase cash counting machines. POS systems are also a great time saver and have become a must have item in today’s society.

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Finance

With starting a business come a lot of formalities. There are some formalities that you should get right from the start and some that are over emphasised. Lets start with some mandatory things. The accounts. Don’t ever think you’ll get away without getting involved in the figures. To be involved with the accounts is to keep your finger on the pulse of your business and enables you to make more informed decisions. It is also required by law. I’m not going to delve into the details of how to manage your finance; I’m going to tell you what people don’t tell you. If you’re not a ‘numbers’ person you will find the formalities of the accounts challenging. You should not learn it on your own. You need to pick an accountant you trust, and go through how the daybooks and accounts work. Figure out your responsibilities and there’s. Learning the accounts is a steep learning process so you need an accountant who is available at a calls notice. Accounts software packages will offer the world but if you don’t know how to use them they are useless and often unnecessary. Finally something that I wished someone told me at start-up, is keep on top of the accounts and paperwork, the worst thing you can do is leave the work for a later date, it becomes more complex than it already is and you would have wished a month from now that you started today. Notice how I don’t say give all the figures to your accountant to sort out. You need to have a grip of our finances yourself for so many reasons. In essence the financials of your business is the only real measure of how well you are doing. It is not opinion based, it is fact. It teaches you to face reality and act accordingly. So to keep my message succinct, get an accountant that will act almost as mentor, learn how to manage the finances before you launch your business and finally use the accounts as a way to monitor your business.

Business sense

This article as I mentioned in the introduction is not an exhaustive list of what should be done to start a brick and motor business. It is getting down to the basics. All the rest you can find on numerous websites. So this brings me to business sense.

There is so much information to process while running a business. If you think you will be outsourcing lots of work to other people, and this will make your job easy you are wrong. You may have staff, accountants, web developers, contractors etc but you will have direct what they do. They do not know your vision and they often want to get the work done in the quickest time frame for the least amount of money. This is exactly against what you’re trying to achieve. That’s why when your delegating you will really need to take a ‘hands on’ approach with everyone in your business or you will slowly drift away from your vision and into mediocre. Do not be afraid to get tough with your staff and be the boss they are afraid of. Although being liked is good attribute, in the beginning stages you need to take charge of the situation and show whose boss.

Since you are where the buck stops and you will be creating the direction for the business, you need business sense. Business sense is required because you will be dealing with things all the time that you are not an expert on, so you need to use business sense. Business sense to me is common sense. But then there is nothing common about common sense. You need to simply judge all your decisions based on what will generate more profit. It is such a simplistic concept but very hard in practise.

For example say you are an owner of a pop-stall and your current counter doesn’t look good anymore and is worn. Should you buy a new counter for your pop-up stall that costs hundreds of pounds? Some decisions will be simple, but a question like this favours a business mind. I choose a question like this purposely since there seems to be no right or wrong answer. But there is. One decision will make more profit than the other, however negligible that may be. You need weigh up the factors for and against and you need use common sense. How important is the look of the counter to customers? Will customers not be likely to come back again because the counter doesn’t look good, but the food was still great? You will be faced with trivial decisions like this all the time as well as very important decisions but the same criteria should be at the forefront of your mind, ‘what will generate more profit’. This to me is business sense and will prove invaluable to you when starting up your business.

Last word

I have learnt that often the most obvious decision or the decision you advised to do is often the wrong decision. This obviously is not always the case however I follow the mentality of ‘see where the crowd goes and move the opposite way’. If I were to have listened to the people around me, even my closest friends and family I would have failed or not even attempted to start my business. And it doesn’t change after you have set up your business either. You have to carve your own way.

You may think the mind of many is better than your mind on its own. You may think other people are clever than you. You may think that other people’s vast experience makes them more qualified than you. But tell me this, who shares the same vision as you? The true answer is nobody. In many ways you are the most qualified person to make the decision. Consider others opinions but always make the decision that feels right for you.